A week before the Atreides ducal leaves for the planet Arrakis, an old woman visits the Lady Jessica and her son, Paul.
The old lady pulls an Edward Cullen and watches the boy as he sleeps. Actually, she does it with the Lady Jessica, so it's a little less creepy. Or is that creepier?
The old woman notes that Paul is awake and listening. He's a sly boy, but he'll need rest if he is to face the gom jabbar tomorrow. Then they'll see if he's truly the Kwisatz Haderach.
What's the gom jabbar? The Kwisatz Haderach? Arrakis? Where does Herbert come up with these words? Neither Paul nor the readers get any answers as the old woman and Jessica leave the boy to sleep.
Paul wakes up the next day, thinking about Arrakis, the desert planet and home of the Fremen, the "will-o'-the-sand people" (1.25).
Jessica enters the bedroom and gets her son ready for the gom jabbar. Turns out the old woman is the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit and the Emperor's Truthsayer. Wow, that's a long name. How about we just refer to her as the Reverend Mother from now on?
Speaking of the Reverend Mother, we find her waiting for Paul, fuming a bit over her mission. It seems she wouldn't have to be here if Jessica had just had a daughter like she was ordered to. Yes, the Bene Gesserit totally have the power to order things like that.
Paul and Jessica arrive. The Reverend Mother dismisses Jessica almost immediately. Before leaving, Jessica tells Paul this test is very important to her. So no pressure.
The Reverend Mother summons Paul using Jedi Mind Trick—er, wait, we mean the Voice. It's another of the many awesome and convenient plot powers a Bene Gesserit possesses.
The Reverend Mother shows Paul a black box with a hole inside and commands the boy to stick his hand in the hole.
Paul does so. The Reverend Mother quickly puts a small needle next to Paul's throat. The needle is the gom jabbar. Should Paul try to move or take his hand out of the box, she'll stick him with the needle's poisonous tip. She warns Paul that the poison will kill him—you know, as opposed to a poison that won't.
But that's not all, folks. The box slowly increases the pain in Paul's hand. As the pain grows, Paul can feel the "skin curling black on that agonized hand, the flesh crisping and dropping away" (1.100). Crazy.
The Reverend Mother stops the test then, claiming no on else has withstood so much. She believes she must have wanted him to fail.
Paul expects to pull a blackened stump from the box, but he gets his hand back, good as new. According to the Reverend Mother, it was all pain by nerve induction.
The Reverend Mother explains that the test's purpose is to separate humans from people. A human will overcome his animal instincts regarding the pain. A person, or animal, will not. Still, you'd think they'd come up with a better test. Maybe a type of litmus paper or something.
Jessica returns. On the outside, she remains stoic, but on the inside, she's stoked her son isn't dead.
The Reverend Mother gives Paul a history lesson. Once, humans built machines to do their thinking for them. But then there was some sort of revolt, and humans were required to develop their minds instead.
(A Note of Fictional History: This part of the universe's history remains fuzzy in Dune, but if you wish to read a more fleshed-out version, check out the book Dune: The Butlerian Jihad.)
Schools were formed for the task, including the Bene Gesserit and the Spacing Guild. Mentats, humans with supreme logical abilities, also developed from this turn in history.
The Reverenced Mother reveals to Paul the Bene Gesserit's purpose of separating humans from people. It's for the purposes of breeding. They never call it eugenics in the book, but, yeah, it's eugenics.
Paul finds that this idea goes against his "instinct for rightness" (1.149). We're right there with you, Paul.
Finally, Reverend Mother tells Paul what the Kwisatz Haderach is. The Bene Gesserit have the ability to look into their "body's memory" and into the past—but only the "feminine avenues" (1.162). Men cannot do this. Why? Because… hm, good question.
One day, through their breeding program, the Bene Gesserit desire to produce the Kwisatz Haderach, a man who can look into both the feminine and masculine pasts. Paul may just be the one.
Paul wonders how the others failed. The Reverend Mother says they died.